The Canadian Navy and the Gulf War, 1990-1991 (Operation Friction)

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Navy News / February 10, 2016

It has been a full quarter-century since a land war in a far off desert region turned the operational focus of the Canadian Navy on its head, and set the tone for the transformation of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), if not the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a whole, into the 21st century.

When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait without warning overnight on August 1, 1990, the general expectation was that Canada eventually would participate in a traditional post-hostilities peacekeeping operation. The rapidly changing international situation, however, allowed for a much different reaction. The Cold War was ending and Canada held a seat on the United Nations Security Council. While the United States launched Operation Desert Shield and assembled a Coalition to prevent a further Iraqi thrust into Saudi Arabia, the UN passed a series of resolutions authorizing a naval embargo. Keen to show support for UN leadership in what was being called a “a new world order,” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney directed the Navy to join the embargo forces. The naval officer standing duty in the National Defence Headquarters Operations Centre (then-Lieutenant-Commander Drew Robertson) had the distinction of selecting the codename for the action – Operation Friction.

The east coast fleet was preparing for the annual fall North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Exercise Teamwork, but the general appreciation was that the aging “steamer” fleet was not up to the threat of Iraqi forces armed with Mirage fighters and Exocet missiles. The mission meant, moreover, that the role of the fleet literally was turned upside down, from traditional open ocean anti-submarine warfare to anti-surface and anti-air warfare in confined tropical waters. It was truly fortunate that new equipment was being stockpiled for the Halifax-class frigates under construction and the Tribal-class destroyer Update and Modernization Program (TRUMP). So, over a busy two-week period, the destroyers HMC Ships Athabaskan and Terra Nova, the supply ship Protecteur, and their five embarked Sea King helicopters, were hastily upgraded with a range of surface warfare and self-defence capabilities.

They sailed from Halifax on August 24 and arrived in the Gulf to commence operations on October 1. Along the way, the mission had continued to evolve. At a meeting of Coalition naval forces, the task group commander, then-Commodore Ken Summers determined that the best placing of the Canadian ships would be, not in the safe rear area of the Arabian Sea outside the Strait of Hormuz, but rather up-threat in the central Gulf, northeast of Bahrain. Adding to the layered defences was the despatch of a wing of CF-18 Hornets to fly combat air patrols with the United States Navy (an eventual 24 aircraft would deploy to Doha, Qatar).

With this expansion of the commitment, Commodore Summers was designated to move ashore and assume command of the first ever deployed Canadian joint headquarters, in Manamah, Bahrain, and Captain D.M. “Dusty” Miller assumed the mantle of at-sea task group commander.  For the next two months, with only 10 per cent of the assigned forces, the three Canadian warships carried out more than a quarter of the total Coalition inspections of cargo ships and vessels suspected of trying to run the blockade.

Even as the embargo tightened, Saddam Hussein failed to respond to the mounting pressure.  When the US unleashed Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991, the role of the naval task group changed yet again.  Captain Miller was made “UNREP Sierra” and delegated tactical control of the Coalition Logistics Force (CLF), making him the only non-USN officer assigned a warfare commander responsibility in the conflict, a task easily managed from Athabaskan fitted as his command ship. While again less than 10 per cent of the CLF, the three Canadian ships distinguished themselves in unique fashions: when the cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) struck a mine off Kuwait, Athabaskan being fitted with mine avoidance sonar was the logical choice to escort her to safety; Terra Nova undertook more escort missions than any other Coalition warship through the Strait of Hormuz (which had been nicknamed “Silkworm Alley” in reference to shipping losses during the  recently-concluded Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88); and Protecteur was among the busiest of the operational support ships, conducting 70 replenishments of vessels from 10 different nations.

The ground assault was launched on February 24, and 100 hours later – on the 28th  – Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. With the disengagement of naval forces, the task group sailed from Dubai on March 12 and arrived in Halifax on April 7.

The embargo against Iraq remained in effect. HMCS Huron had been identified to replace Athabaskan, and was deployed in the Gulf from April 23 to June 27, 1991. During this time, it was the first Coalition warship to enter Kuwait harbour, supporting the re-opening of the Canadian embassy there, and hosting the Maritime Commanders Conference on June 7. Huron returned to its home port of Esquimalt on August 2, having been the first HMC Ship to circumnavigate the globe since the Korean War and ending a full year of Canadian naval association with the Gulf.

Of course, that was not the end of Canadian naval participation in Gulf operations.  As any sailor who has served in the Royal Canadian Navy over the past quarter century can attest, the region has become “a home away from home” for the RCN.

Dr. Richard Gimblett is the Command Historian of the RCN.  He served as Combat Officer of HMCS Protecteur during the Gulf War, and later co-authored (with Jean Morin) the official history: Operation Friction: The Canadian Forces in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991 (Dundurn, 1997).